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Nuke subs no panacea: Australia’s maritime strategy and a ‘balanced’ naval fleet

HMAS Choules, HMAS Brisbane, INS Kolkata and INS Sahyadri at anchor in Jervis Bay, ACT during AUSINDEX 23 (Source: Defence Image Library)

Australia’s future fleet of nuclear-powered submarines has been heralded as the silver bullet to our tactical and strategic challenges, seemingly leaving the Navy’s surface fleet as the orphan. However, for ANU senior adviser Jennifer Parker, the Royal Australian Navy is in desperate need of a strategy of “balance”.

Australia’s future fleet of nuclear-powered submarines has been heralded as the silver bullet to our tactical and strategic challenges, seemingly leaving the Navy’s surface fleet as the orphan. However, for ANU senior adviser Jennifer Parker, the Royal Australian Navy is in desperate need of a strategy of “balance”.

As an island, export-focused nation, it goes without saying that Australia’s sovereignty, security, and economic prosperity is intrinsically and inescapably linked to the stability of our maritime surrounds and the nation’s uncontested and unmolested access to the global maritime commons.

Recognising the centrality of the Indo-Pacific’s sea lines of communication, the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review, released in late-April 2023, has prioritised the fundamental restructuring of the Royal Australian Navy.


This realignment of Navy’s force structure and capability is part of government’s recognition that the Australian Defence Force as a whole is no longer fit for purpose in the era of increased great power competition and multipolarity, heralding a shift away from a “balanced force” towards a “focused force” in the face of mounting great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.

First and foremost is the rapidly deteriorating geopolitical, tactical, and strategic situation emerging across the Indo-Pacific, necessitating the development of a flexible, future-proofed force capable of reliably responding to the tactical and strategic requirements placed upon the service by the nation’s policymakers.

At the centre of this renewed emphasis, the long-awaited Defence Strategic Review (DSR) highlights the renewed importance of the nation’s maritime security, stating: “Australia’s Navy must be optimised for operating Australia’s immediate region and for the security of our sea lines of communication and maritime trade.”

Establishing both our immediate region (read maritime economic exclusion zone) and the long-range, sustained control and security of our critical sea lines of communication and maritime trade as the central responsibilities of the Royal Australian Navy, with additional emphasis placed on the strategic deterrence and sea control priorities of Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

This combination of factors is responsible for the launch of a comprehensive review conducted by US Vice Admiral (Ret’d) William Hilarides into the very make up and future of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet, to both complement the capability of the future nuclear-powered submarine fleet and deliver the maritime security and stability needed in this era of great power competition.

For the Australian National University’s National Security College senior adviser Jennifer Parker, Australia’s response to these challenges requires a new look at maritime strategy and appropriate resourcing of the Royal Australian Navy.

In her new report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) titled, An Australian Maritime Strategy: Resourcing the Royal Australian Navy, she recognises the challenges facing the restructuring of the Royal Australian Navy and presents a series of recommendations to overcome the doctrinal and structural challenges we face.

Understanding our environment

At the foundation of Parker’s analysis is establishing a firm understanding of Australia’s immediate maritime environment and the pivotal role it plays in shaping the nation’s economic, political, and strategic stability.

In highlighting this, Parker states, “Australia is the sixth largest country by landmass and the only one of that top six to be completely surrounded by water. Our coastline is the sixth longest in the world at just under 60,000 kilometres – a formidable one to monitor by any standard. Australia’s EEZ accounts for around 10 million square kilometres of water – a space larger than Australia’s landmass.

The scale of the challenge is further compounded by the size of Australia’s internationally agreed search and rescue region, which covers the Australian continent and large areas of the Indian, Pacific and Southern oceans as well the Australian Antarctic Territory. That region is nearly 53 million square kilometres (one-tenth of the Earth’s surface), and most of it is sea,” Parker highlights.

However, the complexity of the challenges facing Australia goes beyond our immediate region and extends into Southeast Asia, the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and of course, the South Pacific.

As an exporting nation dependent on the global flow of trade via the maritime commons, Australia’s maritime interests incorporate the sea lines of communication and strategically vital choke points which crisscross the Indo-Pacific, serving as the life blood of our contemporary way of life.

Parker explains the importance of these environs, saying, Most of Australia’s seaborne trade travels through the SCS. The transit to Australia passes through a number of choke points, notably the Lombok Strait, the Sunda Strait and the Bismarck Sea between mainland Papua New Guinea and New Britain. Shipping companies will always take the most financially expedient route to their destination, so, while those choke points are on the main paths of seaborne trade to Australia, there are alternative routes should they be blocked.”

Further stressing the importance of these sea lines of communication and choke point, Parker details, From a global maritime trade perspective, there are 14 major choke points, of which the Strait of Malacca, between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, is one of the most significant. Its importance lies in the fact that it connects the Indian Ocean to the SCS. Although not directly adjacent to Australia, the strait is significant to Australia for a number of reasons. About 20 per cent of global trade, and 60 per cent of China’s trade, flows through it.

While most of Australia’s fuel comes from Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia, a large volume of unrefined oil transits through the Malacca Strait from the Middle East or the coast of Africa to Southeast and Northeast Asia for refining. From an Australian economic standpoint, free access to shipping through the strait is important,” Parker stresses.

Maritime strategy, the DSR and future of the RAN

All these factors combine to require a comprehensive maritime strategy to inform the structure of the future surface fleet and its tactical and strategic operating concepts.

For Parker, it is critical to understand that in order to be effective, Maritime strategies are contextual. They must be responsive to changes in threat, technologies, capabilities, fiscal constraints and national objectives, although they’re also tied to the constraints of geography.”

This is particularly important in the Australian context as more broadly we have to despite the rhetoric to the contrary, shake off the belief that our region remains largely benign, and take active steps towards responding to the complex challenges the nation faces to its maritime security.

For Parker, the contextual nature of maritime strategy and the government’s Defence Strategic Review articulate an implicit maritime strategy” based on a strategy of denial” which is articulated in the DSR as, A strategy of denial is a defensive approach designed to stop an adversary from succeeding in its goal to coerce states through force, or the threatened use of force, to achieve dominance. Denial is associated with the ability and intent to defend against, and defeat, an act of aggression.”

However, for Parker, it is important to avoid conflating this proposed strategy of denial” with a sea denial strategy” as the core of Australia’s future maritime strategy with a host of implications for Australia’s future naval force structure.

Parker details the very real dangers of making this mistake, stating, There’s an easy temptation to conflate the DSR’s ‘strategy of denial’ with a strategy of ‘sea denial’. That would be a mistake; in an Australian context, a strategy of ‘sea denial’ wouldn’t afford protection to our lengthy SLOCs. Importantly, the DSR’s ‘strategy of denial’ refers to denying an adversary’s ability to ‘coerce states through force, or the threatened use of force’. This is a strategy aimed at denying the actions of a potential adversary that aren’t geographically bound, and subsequently doesn’t correlate to the traditional geographical maritime strategy of ‘sea denial’.”

Rather, in order to deliver on the strategy of denial” proposed in the Defence Strategic Review, Parker articulates a broader conceptualisation of this strategy with wide-ranging implications for the Navy’s force structure.

In particular, Parker states, Implicitly, the DSR’s ‘strategy of denial’ against coercive force within an Australian context implies a maritime strategy that relies on elements of sea denial, sea control and power projection. The DSR includes in its critical capabilities both the ability to achieve sea denial and localised sea control, but it isn’t clear where, for how long and in aid of what objectives either is aimed at achieving.”

Explaining further, Parker adds, From a maritime perspective, deterring coercion (as required in the DSR’s broader ‘strategy of denial’) will require operations beyond the primary area of military operations outlined in the DSR – on occasion, stretching out into the eastern Indian Ocean to secure seaborne supply. Australia’s primary area of military interest from a maritime strategy perspective should also consider inclusion of the Southern Ocean.”

Clearly, this presents a dramatic departure from the operational concepts, strategies, platforms, and force structures that have taken centrestage in the debate swirling around the future structure and capabilities of the Royal Australian Navy.

We need a larger ‘balanced fleet’

Central to delivering this new maritime strategy, Parker seemingly contradicts the broader push of the Defence Strategic Review towards a “focused force” shifting away from the balanced force” championed by every Defence white paper since the 1987 Defence of Australia White Paper.

At the core of Parker’s proposal for this balanced fleet” is a recognition that nuclear submarines are not the panacea to all of Australia’s maritime security challenges, rather they are a key component of a broader naval force structure that is optimised to deliver both the explicit and implicit objectives articulated in the Defence Strategic Review.

Importantly, Parker articulates the necessary recognition by Australia’s policymakers to avoid viewing the nation’s future nuclear-powered submarine fleet as such, stating, Nuclear-powered submarines bring many benefits; their stealth, speed and endurance give a maritime power such as Australia an asymmetric capability. That’s to say that submarines have been historically able to achieve a large amount of destruction relative to their size and risk exposure. Submarines can have a disproportionate impact on an adversary’s attempts to achieve sea control.

However, there are limitations. They can’t perform many important naval tasks and hence can’t replace an adequately sized fleet of major surface combatants,” Parker states.

This recognition would have a dramatic impact on the shape of the future Royal Australian Navy and necessitates a more nuanced and balanced approach to our naval force structure, which Parker explains, Discussion on the benefits of a ‘balanced naval fleet’ isn’t new and shouldn’t be confused with the direction of the DSR to transition the ADF from a balanced to a focused force. Those are two different considerations, and to treat them as the same would be to mistake how navies function.”

At the core of this proposal, Parker advocates for a larger surface combatant fleet to expand the options available to the Australian government and as a means of delivering some measure of the maritime strategy identified by the Defence Strategic Review.

Although this report advocates for a larger surface combatant fleet than the traditional 11–12 major surface combatants that the RAN has fielded, it needs to be noted that even an increase to 16–20 major surface combatants would result in Australia having a small-to-medium maritime capability," Parker explains.

Going further, Parker adds, For a Navy that’s historically been structured by the requirement to balance workforce and fiscal constraints against the vast reaches of Australia’s maritime areas of responsibility, any move away from a ‘balanced fleet structure’ would inhibit the ability to deliver the maritime and naval tasks that underpin any relevant maritime strategy for the defence of Australia’s interests.

This doesn’t mean that the wider ADF shouldn’t be ‘focused’ on certain missions, but it does mean that the RAN requires a ‘balanced’ fleet structure. The backbone of this should be a credible surface-combatant fleet comprising a suitable number of ships designed and configured to deliver the maximum possible range of combat-related effects. Any move away from a ‘balanced’ fleet structure would inhibit the ability to deliver the maritime and naval tasks that underpin any relevant maritime strategy for the defence of Australia’s interests.”

Final thoughts

The rapidly deteriorating geopolitical and strategic environment that is transforming the global and regional security paradigm requires a realistic analysis and assessment by Australia’s policymakers.

Equally, while taking shortcuts to end up with 50 per cent of something, as opposed to 100 per cent of nothing is an admirable goal, however, ultimately it will only prove more costly in the long run as we scramble to rapidly develop high-end warfighting capability.

Both the Australian government and the Australian public have to accept and understand that we will need to dramatically increase spending in our national defence and do so over the long term, rather than short-term sugar hits or sleights of hand that push money out over the forward estimates and allow inflation to account for “increases in spending, despite there being little-to-no new money in real terms.

Importantly, no one has said that defending the nation in this era of renewed and increasingly capable great power competition will be cheap or easy and we have to accept that uncomfortable reality. Ultimately, this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “balanced force” towards “focused force” as championed in the Defence Strategic Review.

In the second part of this series we will take a closer look at what constitutes a balanced fleet in the Australian context and how this approach can best support the delivery of Australia’s maritime strategy.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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